Sontag on Impertinent Sympathy and Photographs of Evil

In Colin Marshall (ed.), Comparative Metaethics: Neglected Perspectives on the Foundations of Morality. Routledge (2020)
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This chapter corrects for Susan Sontag's undeserved neglect by contemporary ethical philosophers by bringing awareness to some of the unique metaethical insights born of her reflections on photographic representations of evil. I argue that Sontag's thought provides fertile ground for thinking about: (1) moral perception and its relation to moral knowledge; and (2) the epistemic and moral value of our emotional responses to the misery and suffering of others. I show that, contrary to standard moral perception theory (e.g. Blum 1994), Sontag holds that we can have general moral perceptual knowledge. I then explore Sontag's idea that certain emotional responses, like sympathy and compassion, can sometimes be impertinent, in virtue of their having false or illusory content. I explain why this is so, and show the epistemic and motivational problems it poses for moral sentimentalism.

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Sean T. Murphy
Southern Utah University


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